Monday, April 21, 2008

Follow the leader

This is a tale of two cities.

Two hockey teams. Two embarrassing seasons. Two fractured dressing rooms. Two (and soon to be three) coaching changes. Zero playoff wins.

And two players, the undisputed and unquestioned leaders of their respective teams, who apparently don't deserve an ounce of blame.

In Toronto, the Maple Leafs have just suffered through a third straight season without a playoff berth. The team is a mess, from ownership through management, down to the lame duck coach and (especially) the can't-win-when-it-matters lineup.

But fans and media agree: You can't blame Mats Sundin.

Mats SundinThe occasionally feisty Toronto media regularly writes adoring fluff pieces about Sundin's leadership. When a critical piece does appear, such as Steve Simmons' recent and relatively mild swipe, Leaf fans react with outrage.

You can questions his teammates or his coach, and even (every once in a while) his play. But on one point, there's unanimous agreement: You simply can not question Sundin's leadership.

Why not?

It's clear that the Leafs dressing room is a mess. A group of cozy veterans refuse to waive no-trade clauses, apparently perfectly satisfied with perpetual losing. Kyle Wellwood is handed the second line center's job, and responds with a slothful offseason. Jason Blake follows a $20 million contract with an embarrassing season, then gripes about his playing time. Players young and old have mastered the art of whining and moaning their way through loss after loss, all the while spouting empty excuses about injuries or hot goalies or bad luck.

But the man everyone agrees is the team's leader gets a free pass. He's a great captain. Beyond reproach. Pay no attention to the flaming wreckage behind the curtain.

Meanwhile in Ottawa, the Senators have completed a season that may have been even more pitiful than Toronto's, if only because there were actually some expectations.

The Senators are a team in turmoil these days. The dressing room in fractured, with several young stars with big money contracts who seem more interested in living the good life than in winning hockey games. Players are late for practice, teammates fight on the ice, big money free agent signings all but beg for a chance to leave town, and as the season went on the team's stars made it clear that a full effort every night was just too much to ask.

But again, the unquestioned leader doesn't have to take a drop of the blame. Sens fans, while eager to pick apart the rest of the roster, refuse to hear a bad word about Daniel Alfredsson. Meanwhile, the media is ready to deify him.

AlfredssonDon Brennan all but wrote Alfie a love note, even as the Senators stumbled to an embarassing sweep. "Stop the questions" ordered Bruce Garrioch in his season wrapup, awarding Alfredsson an A+. Even Erin Nicks, usually one of the Ottawa media's few reasonable voices, used her weekly newspaper column to insist that the captain is above criticism.

Alfredsson's early return from an apparent torn MCL was certainly courageous, and worthy of the praise that the adoring Ottawa media heaped on it. But it's not unfair to point out that the so-called miracle comeback was utterly ineffective.

The night of the captain's emotional return also saw the Sens lose battles all night long, Chris Neil take three selfish penalties, and Jason Spezza quit on a backcheck on the Penguin's insurance goal. Imagine what the night would have been like without Alfredsson's aura of leadership lighting the way.

Sundin and Alfredsson may not be the cause of their teams' problems. Both are classy veterans who shine on the ice and keep their noses clean off it. Neither has had so much as a whiff of scandal or controversy. Both are clearly their team's best players, and are popular fan favorites.

But the fact remains that both are also the leaders of teams in turmoil, presiding over rotten dressing rooms populated by losers and quitters. All the fan worship in the world can't change the facts.

How many icebergs can a ship hit before the captain takes some of the blame?


  1. ahh, going down the slippery slope of "blame mats" once again.

    you make some valid points. i just can't criticize guys for using no-trade clauses that were negotiated into their contract. if they were holding the team hostage through non-negotiated means, i'd roast em. but they're not. the "muskoka 5" (god i can't believe i actually used it) were simply exercising their rights.

    i know you wanted sundin gone for higgins and picks. i know you wanted kaberle gone for carter and a pick. but i'm happy with both remaining leafs.

    i'm content with sundin paving the way for the young players. you may question his leadership and wonder why he is above criticism, but he's taken his fair share over the years, especially his early years in toronto. sundin took a lot of crap, and you know that.

    he just hasn't had the support cast, ever, in his tenure here, and i think that plays a big role in people cutting him some slack. they look at his career in toronto and see what he has done with complete disarray upstairs most of the time, and useless linemates the rest of the time...they look and say "hey, this guy's done pretty well considering the circumstances." is he a messier? absolutely not. can he take the team on his back and deliver a cup? no, he can't. but he's done everything asked of him and been a leader on and off the ice, enough so that i can respect his decision not to leave, and enough so that i want him to retire a leaf, like so many captains before him didn't get to do.

    i'm biased. i know that.

    good post sean.

  2. I think it has something to do with the Swedish, I mean, I can't for the life of me think of any Swedish person that is unlikeable.

    The Sedin's are kinda freaky lookin', but thats it.

  3. Navin,

    It's not so much a case of "blame Mats", at least not this time. I don't think he's the reason the team is a mess. But I do think that the fact that the team is a mess is incompatible with the view of him as a great leader. Or I suppose you could look at it another way -- if he is a great leader and the team situation is still this bad, what kind of unprecedented disaster would it be without him?

    As for the supporting cast, part of me has to wonder: If he was a little less "classy" and accepting of mediocrity, maybe the Leafs would have been forced to do a better job of putting some talent around him. We always admire him for never saying a word about being stuck with linemates like Hoglund and Renberg. Maybe he should have.

  4. i think at the time of hoglund and renberg, the leafs were actually making some decent playoff there's no way sundin would have said anything. we had guys like roberts, tucker, mogilny...traded for nolan, leetch...during those years we were competitive...sundin didn't have the best talent around him, but the team was successful, so he wouldn't have complained...

    and if he did complain, he would have been roasted for being the swedish captain in toronto who, at the end of the day, was ungrateful...

    gilmour and clark didn't take the leafs any farther than come their leadership doesn't come into question like sundin's? i know you're drawing parallels between sundin and alffy and toronto and ottawa, but why not include gilmour and clark when discussing great leadership?

    i think jared is's absolutely got something to do with the fact sundin is swedish and NOT canadian...he will not be fully accepted (like gilmour and clark were) unless he wins the cup, something that probably won't happen...dougie and wendel didn't have to win the cup to win our hearts and our minds...the same standard isn't being held for sundin...

  5. DGB,

    Is this what you're referring to?

    "No one dares to question (Alfie's) character."

    I didn't say that Alfredsson was above all criticism -- if people want to question his play, that's their choice. And for the record, you're right -- his return didn't help, as many thought it would. My point was that 11 shows the type of "never quit" mindset that this team solely lacks. Spezza and Heatley fold like tents when adversity is presented. Alfredsson does not (at least, not anymore). Fans obviously want to see that kind of effort from all members of the team -- especially the ones making a lot of coin.

    P.S. I try to be a "reasonable voice". Much obliged.

  6. Erin -

    I didn't say that Alfredsson was above all criticism -- if people want to question his play, that's their choice.

    Fair point. I made the distinction between criticism vs character in the Sundin section and should have done the same for Alfredsson.

    As you say, Heatley and Spezza have both shown some distressing signs about which direction they're headed in terms of character. That has to reflect on Alfredsson leadership and captaincy to some degree. He may be leading by example -- are the younger guys tuning that out?

  7. Isn't it ultimately tough for anyone who isn't in the dressing room to really know what kind of a "leader" any of these guys are? You can make the argument that some players lead by example with determination and never-say-die attitude on the ice; certainly Clarkie and Gilmour would fall in that category, and much of the reverence for them among Leaf fans is the result of inspired play in clutch situations. If that's so, Sundin is entitled to the same respect - he too has been a clutch performer and has battled to give his best for the team in much the same way.

    As for the no-trade clauses, I'm with Navin, you can't hold it against the players that they insist upon exercising the rights they negotiated (and no doubt paid a premium for in terms of foregone salary) into their deals. It boggles the mind to think of what JFJ would have paid McCabe WITHOUT the no-trade provision, but the economic reality is that the players had to give up something to get those clauses included; it is unfair for the team or its fans to expect the players to simply ignore these terms when it's convenient for the club.

  8. Isn't it ultimately tough for anyone who isn't in the dressing room to really know what kind of a "leader" any of these guys are?

    That's definitely true -- we never really know what goes on back there. Maybe Sundin and Alfie are throwing guys against the wall. But whatever they're doing, the results don't seem to be there.

    As for the NTCs, I know the players have a right to use whatever leverage they have. It just seems odd that virtually every other player with an NTC will agree to go somewhere under the right conditions, while all five of our guys just outright refused to consider it.